“The tyranny of the majority” – really?

The phrase “the tyranny of the majority” is one that has been bandied around a lot recently. Some might be tempted to simply shrug it off as another example of Remoaners doing a bit of moaning. But the phrase actually encapsulates a serious point about the limits of democracy in a diverse, modern society. Whether the Remain voters are using the phrase correctly is, however, another question.

John Major talked about “the tyranny of the majority” at some length last November. He first used the phrase in a speech to a dinner in Westminster. Sir John made it very clear that he wanted the views of the 48% who had voted “Remain” to be taken into account by the government during its negotiations with the EU.

Tim Farron and Tony Blair quickly came out in agreement (no surprises there) as did many others. A common theme was that another referendum should be held before Britain actually left the EU. The idea was that the simple majority of votes cast in June 2016 should not determine Britain’s future for ever. That seems to be what these Remain supporters mean by “the tyranny of the majority”.

But that is not how the phrase is usually meant nor used.

The phrase was first used by American founding father Alexander Hamilton during the drafting of the Constitution of the USA back in the 18th century. Hamilton worried that if there was a permanent majority of people with one viewpoint, they could use it to oppress and disempower those with a different viewpoint.

An example being bandied around at the time was that the densely populated industrial cities might use their voting power to penalise the more thinly populated agricultural areas. Perhaps agricultural exports would be highly taxed, but no taxes put on industrial exports. So those in rural communities would be economically penalised by a larger bloc of voters. That would be unfair.

Hamilton and his colleagues sought to get around this by setting up the electoral college system for the Presidential elections and the way states have weighted voting in the US Senate. Not a perfect solution, but at least they recognised the problem and made an effort to solve it.

A more recent example in the UK might be the fox hunting ban. A majority of the population live in urban areas and prefer not to see foxes hunted by florid-faced stereotypes in red jackets on horseback. The realities of the situation in rural areas played little part in the debate. The urban majority got their way, and look set to continue to get their way for the forseeable future.

That is a real example of “the tyranny of the majority”. One section of the nation has been permanently oppressed by another, larger section which has no stake in the outcome of the oppression. I do not recall Major, Blair or Farron objecting then.

By comparison the EU Referendum vote was a simple exercise in direct democracy. Now, you may or may not approve of referendums [I’ll come back to that another time], but “the tyranny of the majority” it most certainly is not.

Photo by Chatham House, London

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Rupert Matthews

Rupert Matthews

Rupert Matthews is a freelance writer and historian. During the recent EU Referendum campaign he served as Campaign Manager for Better Off Out and spoke at meetings from Penzance to Aberdeen, Belfast to Dover. Rupert has written over 100 books on history, cryptozoology and related subjects. He has served as a councillor for 8 years and has stood for both the Westminster and European Parliaments. You can follow Rupert on Twitter at @HistoryRupert or on Facebook as rupert.matthews1.

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  1. Adam HileyReply

    does anyone really care about the ramblings of a grey old has been like Major truly one of the biggest failures and traitors to ever reside in Number 10 Downing Street followed by Blair Brown then Cameron I can still to this day ever understand why the So-Called Conservative Party ever replaced Margaret Thatcher for this boring dud

  2. Derek ReynoldsReply

    Most likely because he was a boring but malleable dud. A ‘sock puppet’ to replace the ‘Iron Maiden’ who eventually saw what the EU was really about and railed against it spelling her death knell. It is infamously said that when Herd and Major returned from Maastricht, Major turned to Herd and asked “Now, what did we just sign?”


  3. StevenReply

    One of the richest ironies of the EU referendum is that if Major and Bliar had acted sensibly and given us referendums on individual treaties then perhaps the head of steam against our EU membership might well not have built-up to the extent that it did resulting in the Leave vote last June. I also wonder if David Cameron is now kicking himself for not allowing a REAL electoral reform referendum in 2011 ie one on a system of Proportional Representation instead of the one we had on that farcical non-PR system of the Alternative Vote. If he had allowed us such a vote it might have been voted for by the electorate then he could have formed a Tory/Lib Dem coalition government in 2015 and not given us the referendum.

  4. StevenReply

    Major was also idiotic and contemptous of public opinion enough to childishly call the Liberal Democrats’ long-standing support of PR during the 1992 general election as ‘Paddy’s Roundabout’ instead of dealing with the issue seriously.

  5. Rev RolandReply

    Perhaps even more relevant now is the tyranny of the minority.

    It has reached the point where major law is based on minority paradigms,
    which is part of the New Left paradigm (in the UK referred to as New Labour;
    Mandelson’s main contribution was to give the existing neo-stalinist
    thought a different name to what the other leftie radicals gave it).

    This in turn has led to a clearly illegitimate State – for example State
    sponsored sexual terrorism.

  6. Jason BReply

    I note the comment about having proportional representation. I am unable to agree with PR. At first sight it may appear fairer, but really getting nowhere. Just sitting around the table at stalemate. It would be a ‘dog in a manger’ type policy managerment without any clear focused leadership. UKIP took on the establishment and proved they had a strong case that suited all shades and forced Cameron to promise a referendum. This goal and its result has been achieved. Where will the voters now turn to in 2020? Will or won’t we find a strong party leader with clear foresight able to go further with policies to free this Country from the indoctrination and influence of liberal/left political correctness and put us on a better moral footing?

  7. Ernie BlaberReply

    John Major (Sir) architect of one million people losing their homes, and a similar number of firms going bust. They all suffered as a consequence of Sir John’s stupid policy refererence the ERM. He was rewarded with a Knighthood. Is it any wonder that the so called political elites are held in universal contempt by the electorate at large.

  8. Malcolm MorrisonReply

    We currently live in a ‘democracy’ that abides by a simple majority. None of the MPs who now ‘challenge’ the validity of the ‘small’ majority in the referendum, would be kicking up a fuss if they won their seat in Parliament by one vote, let alone by 4 per cent! However, all the clubs or societies to which I have ever belonged have a ‘rule’ that, in order to ‘change the consitution’ (which, of course, Britain does not have!), one needs a two thirds majority – but this was not written into the Referendum Bill.

    I also heard (great to have ‘hearsay’ evidence!) that two thirds of the MPS who ‘ratified’ the Lisbon Treaty had not read it! Many who now argue about ‘Brexit’ do not appear to be well-informed about the ‘rules and regulations’ that apply to membership of the EU!

    The UK (as a whole – not certain bits of it) voted to ‘LEAVE’ the EU – not bits of it (like the ‘single market’ (which is what we joined before it was ‘attached’ to the ‘fre movement of people’). We voted to CONTROL not only immigration but OUR laws and OUR courts – in other words ‘Independence’ for Britain’.

  9. Jason BReply

    My wife was suggesting shall we fly the ‘Union Jack’ tomorrow, Brexit day, 29 March. Thinking it over I did wonder if 29 March 2019 may be the better choice!

    As one has said, if Major and Blair had given us a referendum on every treaty we would not be in this current position. This therefore needs expanding to educate the public, that we voted to have our own sovereignty and independence on the 23 June 2016 and it is will be our past politicians at fault if we cannot fully complete the two year exit plan on time, this being due to them acting undemocratically in not giving us a vote on every change.

  10. RobinReply

    John Major 1992-97 Notable for forcing Maastricht(mass trick) Treaty through in November 1991,
    Also ”Cones hotline” and Fan of ERM costing UK Taxpayers £68billion (30 year rule) September 1992 diabocle.
    Paving the Way for Eurofanatic Tony Blair 1997-2008.

    In C21 Entitlements of MPs ,MEPs, Lords need reforming.
    A 2nd Chamber MUST be smaller & elected.
    No more Corporatist appointments.
    The ‘Remain’ largely situated in London,Oxford,Cambridge,Scotland sulks are set to top Edward Heath’s
    when he was replaced in March 1975.

    Parliament will be more relevant Outside European Anti-democratic Union.

  11. Gordon WebsterReply

    Major, Clegg, Mandelson, Blair, and Heseletine, who draws £900,000 a year from our pockets in Farm Subsidies, have all done very well financially from selling British Sovereignty to the European Soviet Union. Their loyalties lie in their pockets and, whether the like it or not, the Will of The People is Absolute Sovereign (Dicey).
    I think the situation is best summed up in a “Straight to the Point,” letter in today’s Mail, from a Mr Boulton of Horncastle. He says – The difference between democracy and populism? Democracy is when the people make a choice. Populism is when the BBC doesn’t like the answer.” For BBC you can read the EU and Remainers.

  12. StevenReply

    I am sorry but I disagree with you Jason B about PR. Some countries do manage perfectly well with PR like Germany does and the problems you mention tend to occur when you take PR to the extremes like the Netherland does with its ELEVEN odd parties in parliament due to the fact there is no real threashold of support you have to surmout before being allowed seats (ie it fragments the party system too much) unlike the Germans with their 5 parties in the Bundestag and a 5% threashold. Some PR systems are very much better than others and in my opinion we should adopt a similar system to Germany’s with ‘open’ lists: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_System_of_Germany

    Our system at the moment is quite simply undemocratic in that it ‘wastes’ far too high a number of votes. It was estimated a total of 74% of votes were ‘wasted’ in 2015’s general election and the figure we should be really concerned about is the 50% or so of votes which DIDN’T ELECT ANYBODY. This is FPTP’s worst failing.

    Also, I believe it would have been very unlikely for Ted Heath to have committed an ILLEGAL act in putting Britain into the ‘Common Market’ in 1972 with the passing of the European Communities Act 1972 if we had had PR in the early 1970s/late 1960’s. This would be because the Tories would have been afraid of losing too much support to their ‘Right-wing’ flank. FPTP helps to ensure that our politicians can do pretty much what they like, even illegal acts, and pay no price for it at the polls.

  13. Jason BReply

    As you say Steve some PR are better. Had the UK thought on this Germany Proportionate Representative example? This is where clarification is required. I can agree that things would have been different had a good PR been in place prior Traitor Ted Heaths time. Many agreed with Enoch Powell’s view over the EU and the leftie papers at the time were bias towards joining Europe. Maybe a new party with the promise of a good PR that would avoid a constant ‘dog in a manger’ situation could be the answer.

    People were fed up and looking for another party. I am afraid the leftie ideology cancer has been going everywhere in society and every political party now spoiling UKIP. Unless Mrs May comes to see different, we would need another new party to take the helm in 2020 to lead our Country on a better footing…

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